Subtly Spring

“Show me some spring pictures,” a reader recently asked me. He was looking for budding trees and fresh green growth. Perhaps I can oblige him in another week or so. For now, the signs of spring are subtler.

It’s mud season, but the trails at Horse Hill Nature Preserve in Merrimack were in remarkably good shape the other day. The herons were back on Lastowka Pond, croaking and courting. I could see that the beavers had been busy along the shoreline, taking down a big tree that barely missed a bench as it fell. Deeper into the woods, I smelled freshly-cut lumber on a refurbished bog bridge.

Simple wooden bridge on forest trail
Early-season work by trail maintainers: a refurbished bridge. Photos by Ellen Kolb.
Trees with beaver damage
The beavers are in town: this pair of trees had been untouched a week earlier.

On a recent walk through Mine Falls Park in Nashua, I looked for swans in the cove but found none. Some years, there’s a pair that bullies the park’s Canada geese into the cove’s farther reaches. The geese are safe for now. I was glad to see blackbirds amid the reeds that edge the cove; I missed them in winter.

Blackbird amid reeds
Blackbird, nearly hidden in reeds

Business took me to Loudon recently, and I added a couple of hours to the trip so I could visit nearby Belmont and discover the Winni Trail, a paved rail trail along Lake Winnisquam. That was one of my better detours.

Winni trail logo, Belmont NH

I had the advantage of a fine sunny day, with cool air and miles of visibility. A stretch of trail went through the woods, with lake and rail line out of sight, and then broke into the open to hug the shore alongside the rails. Good thing someone thought to set up a few benches along the way; the views are definitely worth stopping for.

Lake Winnisquam, Belmont, New Hampshire, from rail trail
Seen from the Winni Trail: a railroad signal mast, Lake Winnisquam, and the hills of the Lakes Region.

It was my first experience with rail-with-trail, where a trail shares the right-of-way with an active rail line. That particular line is owned by the state of New Hampshire, not by a rail corporation, and I suppose that might have simplified development of the trail.

The shared right-of-way continues into Laconia on the WOW Trail (for Lakes Winnisquam, Opechee, and Winnipesaukee). Someday, with a lot of cooperation and investment and volunteer work, there could be a continuous recreational rail trail linking WOW in Laconia with the Winnipesaukee River Trail in Tilton via the Winni Trail in Belmont. That’s a project to cheer for, if Belmont’s trail is indicative of what’s ahead.

Winni trail, rail trail in Belmont New Hampshire, in early spring.
Early spring on the Winni Trail

Easing into the year

I wrote last October about a layered trail: ice, mud, and leaves underfoot. That’s pretty much what I’ve found in January in southern New Hampshire, minus the leaves. Things are pleasantly messy, as long as I have some traction on my shoes. Yes, even for the flat paths: slipping on an icy flat trail in Mine Falls Park left me with a concussion a few years ago. That’s one winter adventure I don’t care to repeat.

I was in Sandown the other day, sharing a trail with some polite ATVers. The trail wasn’t so much layered as patchy: ice here, slush there, frozen tire tracks in the shade, and lots of mud down the middle. I accidentally hit on the best time of day to be a walker there: mid-afternoon, after most of the ATVers had finished for the day. Not every multi-use trail works out so well for me.

Not every trail gives me town line markers. I like it when the markers agree with my GPS.

A short drive north: the Northern Rail Trail follows the Merrimack River in Boscawen and part of Franklin. On New Year’s Day there, I was surprised to see what I’m certain was an osprey. I thought for sure they’d all have headed south long before. An unexpected sighting like that is always a treat. I was too slow to get a photo. I have many miles yet to discover along this trail, which is one of the most popular in central New Hampshire. I’ve walked on each end, so to speak – Lebanon and Enfield at one end, Boscawen at the other – and there are about 40 more miles to go. I could bike it in the summer or fall, but somehow I think that’s taking the easy way out.

Norhern Rail Trail New Hampshire with signs for two snowmobile clubs
Where the work of one snowmobile club ends, another’s begins.

While we’re on the subject of walking in January, let’s thank the snowmobile clubs that groom so many of the trails I enjoy. It’s not all snow grooming: when a club takes responsibility for a trail, the members also do things like clear away deadfall and make sure the trail’s full width gets attention.

I haven’t neglected my town’s conservation areas. I spent a brisk hour on a big loop route starting in Grater Woods, connecting with an adjacent neighborhood with which I was unfamiliar, returning on busy Baboosic Lake Road. I’m not a fan of being a pedestrian on one of our town roads with little shoulder and no sidewalk, but sometimes that’s where a path takes me. As for Horse Hill, I’ve never had a bad day there. No matter how many cars are in the parking lot, the trail network is extensive enough to keep us out of each other’s way.

Do you have resolutions about walks you want to take this year? I always start the year with a list of destinations, more for inspiration than anything else. I don’t want to waste time wondering where to go, if I find myself with a free afternoon. I just dip into The List, which I admit is heavy on rail trails. I also keep a map of New Hampshire on my wall, with outlines of each town, and after I walk in a new town I color in its spot on the map. I get a silly amount of satisfaction out of that little visual record.

Join NH Rail Trails Coalition, Get Guidebook as Bonus

My appreciation for New Hampshire’s rail trails is expressed all over this blog, as many readers have found. Now, the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition is offering a deal that I hope will win the trails some new fans.

Until December 15, 2020, you can join the NHRTC ($20 for a one-year membership for individuals, $35 for organizations) and receive a copy of Charles Martin’s guidebook New Hampshire Rail Trails, 2nd edition at no additional charge. There’s no better guide to the trails around the state, with more than 100 maps along with photographs and trail descriptions.

Want to take a crack the the Rail Trails Challenge? Martin’s book and the Challenge’s Facebook page (private, but anyone may request access) will be your new best friends. Meet the Challenge, earn a patch. Even if you don’t travel on all the rail trails in the state – and as someone who does a lot more walking than biking, I know the Challenge can be a slow process – you’ll have memories and experiences that are way more valuable than a patch, even a pretty one like this.

emblem of New Hampshire Rail Trails Challenge
Patch awarded for completion of NH Rail Trails Challenge

If you already have Martin’s book, maybe there’s a Granite State walker in your life who would love to receive a copy as a gift. Another gift idea: separately from membership, the Coalition also offers a hat for $20 (shipping included).

New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition hat and book

Full disclosure: I’m on the NHRTC board, but I get no personal benefit from this promotion except the pleasure of knowing that it will encourage more people to value a New Hampshire recreational resource.

Fall day in Candia

I drove down Depot Road in East Candia a little slowly, wondering if I’d be able to find the parking lot where the Rockingham Rail Trail crosses the street. I needn’t have worried; the nearly-full lot was impossible to miss. That’s nearly full. I tucked my car into one of the few open spots.

East Candia New Hampshire railroad depot sign
No depot building here, but a sign marks the spot where a depot once stood. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

The lot was a busy place. Couples and singles and families were taking bikes off racks or putting them back on. Hikers were setting out, many sporting seasonal blaze orange vests. It was as warm a day as November ever brings, and everyone wanted to take advantage.

Pick a direction: should I go east into Raymond, or west through Candia? Seeing several parties setting off to the east, I wished them well, and then turned my back to them to walk west.

rail trail granite walls
Rock cut along Rockingham Rail Trail, East Candia NH.

The Rockingham Rail Trail between Manchester and Newfields is more than 20 miles long. It’s a piece-at-a-time endeavor for a walker. I picked a winner of a day to amble out-and-back on a three-mile segment in Candia.

Temp in the 60s: what kind of November is this? Sunshine, few clouds, air as dry as could be.

There were more bicyclists than walkers on the trail. That didn’t mean walkers were overwhelmed; traffic was light to moderate. The few walkers kept their cheerful distance as we passed each other with smiles and nods – you stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine, we seemed to be saying.

Where houses were visible as I approached Main Street, the sounds and smells of a sunny late-autumn weekend took over: raking, leaf-blowing, the last round of mowing for the season, a carefully-tended fire to burn the clippings.

New England rail trail autumn
A sign along the way hints at the winter traffic to come.

My turnaround point was Route 43, or more precisely the tunnel under the ramp linking 43 with Route 101. The parking lot in East Candia was nearly deserted when I returned. I decided to spend a little time walking toward Raymond, but I was racing the sunset: after half a mile, I returned to my car.

I think I saw the trail at its most inviting for walkers. Once the snow flies and piles up, the Rockingham Rail Trail will become a snowmobile corridor. Until then, all you need there is your bike or your walking shoes.

My turnaround point. West of Candia, the trail continues through Auburn into Manchester.

New Hampshire Rail Trail Challenge Update

Here’s a Zoom meeting worth going online for. The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition (of which I’m now a board member) invites you to a Rail Trail Challenge Update on Monday, November 23, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. The online event is free, but registration is necessary.

If you’ve been enjoying the Rail Trail Challenge, or if you’ve never heard of it and would like to know more, c’mon in.

Guest speaker will be Charles Martin, author of the New Hampshire Rail Trails guidebook now in its second edition. There will be time for questions and answers. I also hope to hear some trail reports and stories from Challenge participants.

See you then. In the meantime, you can learn more about NHRTC by checking out its website.

bicyclist on rail trail in forest
A bicyclist enjoys the Presidential Rail Trail in Gorham, NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

Another good trail in Concord

Some of my favorite short after-work hikes have been in Concord, New Hampshire, not far from the State House to which I used to travel for business. The trails on Oak Hill and in Winant Park stand out. Now there’s a new one – new to me, anyway – on the north side of town, where I recently walked for a fine hour and a half.

Autumn forest rail trail Concord NH
Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail, Concord NH. All photos by Ellen Kolb

The two-and-a-half-mile long trail is a segment of the Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail (CLSRT). This long-abandoned old rail line will someday be an uninterrupted upgraded rail trail once again linking Concord and Lake Sunapee. For now, it’s a disjointed thing, with a little piece open for use in Warner, another in Bradford, and now another in Concord.

I was there on an overcast, comfortably cool day. I overshot the lot by just a bit as I drove north on U.S. 3; turning around was no problem in a nearby business’s lot. Mine was the only car in the parking lot at the trailhead, at 25 Fisherville Road (U.S. 3). I found there an information kiosk and a bike-service stand.

trailhead Concord-Sunapee rail trail, Concord NH
Trailhead in Concord, on U.S. 3.

The first section of trail had a surface of smooth well-packed stone dust. The trail was flanked by businesses on one side and a wide open field on the other.

Cloudy day with rail trail
Peak color was past, but autumn conditions were pleasant along the trail.

Before long, the trail entered the woods, becoming a little rougher but still wide and well-defined. Most of the more-vividly-colored leaves had dropped. What was left created a glowing golden tunnel. Granite markers recalled the days of the old active line, when C stood for Concord and CJ stood for Claremont Junction.

The trail stayed close to U.S. 3 before veering west to parallel Bog Road. Traffic noise was not intrusive. One dog’s barking certainly was; more about that later. The noisiest moment I had was when I flushed what must have been a grouse concealed in the leaves just off the trail. The bird’s explosive takeoff startled me half out of my wits.

What’s now a formal piece of rail trail has apparently served as a snowmobile trail, or so I conclude based on one well-signed junction. For the most part, though, I was on a path freshly improved for walkers and bikers alike. Runners, too. I was passed by a few who were probably delighted not to have to get their miles in on the nearby roads.

Trail junction with directional signs
A signed junction along the way.

The trail passes through a residential area, with trees providing some buffer. Many properties were posted with customary small “no trespassing” signs. One owner adopted a more aggressive approach: a huge sign for the owner’s favored presidential candidate, including some profanity for emphasis; a fence alongside the trail with a disproportionate number of signs to discourage wandering trail users – seriously, one would have done the job; and a noisy bulldog to underscore the whole message.

In what may or may not be related news, the Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail website mentions a land-ownership dispute with a nearby resident on the Concord section. At the time I was there, the trail had no detours.

Grouse and bulldog aside, I had a refreshing five-mile round trip walk. I owe that to amazing work by many volunteers and donors who built up this section. Together, they have created another fine trail in Concord.

For more information: Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail